Dealing With Grief in the Workplace

In difficult times, it’s important to be there for the your family — including your small business family.
Be proactive and create a bereavement policy for your small business before the need arises. (Photo: Zurijeta/Shutterstock)

One of the reasons people love working for a small business is the sense of community employees get from such a tight-knit and intimate work environment. In times of grief, it’s even more important for small business employees to come together as a “family” and support each other.

Understanding grief and knowing how to be supportive during a difficult time are great skills for anyone — but for small business owners, it can be critical. More than just creating a compassionate and kind environment for a mourning team member, you also have to keep your business operating.

This advice from grief counselors and mental health experts can help you deal with employee grief in the workplace.

Related: 7 Things You Should Never Ask Your Employees To Do

Educate yourself


“It is unrealistic to expect that a person can lose a spouse, child or parent, and be back at 100 percent the next week.” -Greg Moffatt (Photo: Greg Mofatt)

The more you understand about loss, the better you can support a grieving employee. Get familiar with Kübler-Ross’ “five stages of grief” — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Grief is very individual and these “stages” don’t necessarily follow a particular order. Still, they still provide a good framework for understanding the mindset of a grieving person, said Gregory Moffatt, a counselor with a 30-year private clinical practice and professor of counseling at Point University.

“The process of grieving significant loss can take years, not days or months. Loss leaves us feeling helpless and vulnerable, and it never seems fair. When we have little or no control over something we move toward frustration. Add the complexity of personal connection and you get grief,” he said.

Also, remember grief can be experienced for a number of different reasons, not just death. A major illness, critical injury, separation due to military deployment or even marital turmoil can also bring on significant grief.

There are a ton of resources available online that can help you learn more about grief. Here’s a list of 115 websites that focus on helping individuals cope with loss.

Related: How to Have a Difficult Conversation with an Employee

Create a bereavement policy

You should also be proactive by creating a bereavement policy in place for your small business. Establishing the basics ahead of time, you will already know what to do when the need arises.

Julie Whitford, grief counselor at Atlanta Family Counseling, said providing time off for mourning employees is essential. “Traditionally, companies allow three days bereavement — but usually the funeral doesn’t even happen within three days,” she said. If you can afford it, she recommended giving three to five days so they can make the necessary preparations and be able to mentally and emotionally deal with the situation.

“Understand that death is part of life and grieving takes time,” said Moffatt. “It is unrealistic to expect that a person can lose a spouse, child or parent, and be back at 100 percent the next week.” Also remember that the type of death also plays a role, he said. “Appropriate death,” such as the expected passing of an aging grandparent, is often easier to deal with than the “inappropriate death” of a young child stricken by cancer or killed in a car crash. Depending on the situation, grief can last for weeks, months or even years.

Having a formal bereavement policy in place alleviates some of the stress of the situation for both the employee, who knows what expectations are, and for the business owner who can stay focused on keeping the business running.

Show your support


Find one ‘go-to’ person to reach out to the grieving employee and show the business’ support. (Photo: bunyarit klinsukhon/Shutterstock)

“Knowing you are not alone in your pain is a huge step to managing grief,” said Moffatt. Giving time off and showing support it doesn’t lessen grief, but it can make it more manageable — but make sure you don’t unintentionally overwhelm the mourner.

Whitford: “Instead of four, five or six employees calling the grieving person asking for details and how to help, you need someone who can be the ‘go-to’ person — one point of contact that reaches out to the employee and says, ‘We’re here. What can we do for you?’”

As a business owner, there are many ways you can show your support. Things as simple as sending a group card and flowers or collecting a donation to help cover expenses can mean a great deal to someone going through a tough time.

Be flexible and patient

Hope Ishak, counseling instructor at American Academy of Grief Counseling, said it’s critical to be flexible and patient with the recovering employee. “Often, it’s not just that they are grieving, but they may have to take care of things.” Preparing for the funeral, managing estates and dealing with all the paperwork involved is time consuming. And all this is in on top of trying to mentally grasp and emotionally deal with a loss.

Sometimes, that means that the individual needs more than the three days outlined in the official bereavement policy, she said. But giving them the time they need, and understanding why they need it, is critical because it allows time for processing — which will move the grieving employee toward healing.

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